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Dan Haren fighting back from brink

ATLANTA -- When Jason Heyward hit a lazy pop-up and both Scott Van Slyke and A.J. Ellis drifted over in plenty of time, neither calling for it and the ball landing harmlessly in foul ground, Dan Haren slammed his fist into his glove.

At 33 and with a softening fastball, Haren doesn't have the margin for error to shrug off a key out, especially with the go-ahead run in scoring position.

Three innings later, when Haren struck out Chris Johnson with a nasty split-finger pitch and Ellis blocked it in the dirt to get the Dodgers through the sixth inning with a lead, Haren -- normally stoic, if not placid on the mound -- pumped his fist and stormed toward the dugout.

These are raw, emotional days for the Dodgers' veteran, who is -- it's fair to say -- keenly aware he is pitching for his spot in the rotation and, perhaps, his future as a Dodger and, just maybe, as a professional baseball player.

Haren, it would appear, is not going down without a fight. A week after baffling the powerful Los Angeles Angels, Haren stymied the struggling Atlanta Braves in the Dodgers' 4-2 win Tuesday night, adding another layer of protection between himself and some uncomfortable career questions.

When Haren had a 10.03 ERA in those five starts between July 5 and Aug. 1, he admitted self-doubt began worming its way in though he tried not to read the newspaper or online reports of his outings. He knows how these things work. He figured another bad start would land him in the bullpen. A few more bad outings and who knows? If he continued to struggle, the Dodgers were unlikely to let him reach the 180 innings mark that would trigger a $10 million contract option for 2015.

Maybe more than any of it, though, what we've seen these last two starts was a really competitive guy with a track record, who pitched in the World Series when he was 23, who started an All-Star Game when he was 26, and was tired of getting embarrassed while he stood on a major-league mound.

"I felt like I had nothing to lose," Haren said. "I was in a pretty bad spot."

He studied some video. He huddled at times with pitching coach Rick Honeycutt, at times with catcher Ellis. He concentrated on the mid-delivery pause that used to give him such a clinical, deliberate look and seemed to throw off hitters' timing. He might have gotten a tick or two more velocity, say pushing it to 89 mph, but nothing dramatic.

Mostly it was focus, desire and savvy.

Trying as these last two months have been, Haren is in a good place in his career, in a way. He's once again pitching near his Orange County home and even nearer his San Gabriel Valley hometown. He wants to make it last as long as he can. And, frankly, he wouldn't mind winning a World Series at home. He lost one with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2004, well before he really had any idea what it all meant.

"As my career has gone on, I feel like the losses have hurt more and the wins haven't been as sweet," Haren said. "I think it's the amount of pressure I put on myself. I want to do well so bad, the losing really hurts."

Haren has a good feeling with this team. He said he can feel it in the clubhouse, on the field, even on the buses to and from the airport, and the long flights all over the country. The Dodgers, who have won five of their last seven games and have built their biggest division lead of the season, seem to be building toward their October goals.

Which is part of the reason general manager Ned Colletti went out and swung a couple of trades days after the non-waiver trading deadline, landing starting pitchers Roberto Hernandez and Kevin Correia. Both Hernandez and Correia pitched six strong innings in their Dodgers debuts. Should Haren stumble in the coming weeks, Correia probably would be the next in line to inherit his rotation spot.

Haren and Hernandez could be in competition these final six weeks for a playoff roster spot and, perhaps, a start or two in the playoffs.

Even at Haren's low point, Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said, the team held no internal discussions about jettisoning him from the starting rotation. Whether that becomes a discussion for another day or not, Mattingly clearly is happy for the veteran redeeming himself.

"I think what you have confidence in as a manager is a guy that prepares, a guy that works and cares," Mattingly said. "Danny's that guy."